October Inspired2Educate Winner
Instructor of French
Virginia Union University
I was lucky enough to attend a college where captivating teachers were the norm. For a long time, I thought about my friends when I remembered my days at Oberlin College some 40 years ago. But more recently I’ve started recalling my teachers. Most are retired now, some are dead, and I feel–perhaps a sign of my own middle agedness–a bittersweet solicitude when I picture them. They tried so hard! I want to tell them, now that it is for the most part too late, how much I loved their courses; above all, I want to thank them for opening my mind to history, literature, art, philosophy, music and so much else. But would they, I sometimes wonder, even remember me?
I am moved to tears that my French Professor no longer graces the earth with his presence. He died this summer, after a short illness at the age of 90. I met Professor Szykowski as a Freshman at Oberlin. At the time, I was vaguely aware of his background via rumors on campus — that he was a Jewish refugee from France, that he had Polish-Romanian origins, that many members of his family had been killed during the Holocaust, and that his wife was Native American. He had been removed from school at the age of 14 and two years later he escaped into the south of France until the end of the war, returned to Paris, and was eventually brought to the U.S. through an uncle’s sponsorship. This summer, he Facebooked me. But before I could reply, he passed away.
As a first-generation African American from the “hood”, Prof. Szykowski’s history was intriguing to me as I began to settle into an environment that was “foreign” to me and where self-doubt crept in. I foundered during my first semester at Oberlin, struggling with grades and feeling intimidated by the supposedly vastly superior talent all around me. Yet Prof. Szykowski, who was the Director of the Oberlin-in-France semester that year, invited me to go to France the next semester; and I jumped at the chance. He also invited me to serve on the committee (which was comprised of himself and, ultimately, myself) to select other participants. I was wondering, “What did he see in me that I didn’t see in myself?” It was, I later learned, his experience in France during World War II that had made him especially sensitive to feelings of “outsideredness” which allowed him to empathize with my plight; and I don’t think I would have made it out of Oberlin alive had he not been there.
This is the quality I try to emulate today as a French Instructor at an historically black college where overcoming barriers is a challenge every day for students. About 8 in 10 students are getting Pell Grants, and more than 70 percent get no money from their families to help pay for tuition. Many students work off-campus since there aren’t enough work-study jobs to go around. Some have faced massive roadblocks in their path to college—extreme poverty, broken homes, multiple deaths in the family—and nearly all must work harder than they ever have before to succeed. My struggle is to give those students from under-resourced communities – many of whom can’t even afford textbooks for their classes – the promise of the future and to inspire them to use their pasts as preludes to futures that will honor their legacies, rather than become imprisoned by them.
Many of my students have never written a paper and have nothing but anxiety at the prospect of tests that can make or break a grade. I think back now to Professor Szykowski who, as a young boy in French school, was deemed to be stupid; but his problem was that he had poor eyesight. After getting glasses, his grades improved. I see an analogy between his life-story and that of my students who can blossom with that extra push that should be provided to people who have been dealt a difficult hand through the care they need to thrive in an intellectually challenging environment and in life. Like Prof. Szykowski, who grew up as the son of immigrants (neither of whom spoke French as their native language) and as a Jew during an era of growing anti-Semitism, I see more and more how my students (themselves vernacular dialect speakers) must be understood in the context of larger national and international issues, some of which are systemic, long, and festering.
Many of my students have been traumatized by indignities they or someone they know experienced in their relatively short lives — students who especially need the high-touch support of a liberal arts college and who might otherwise get lost in a larger public university; and they require tutoring or mentoring in things like basic time management and academic skills, especially in preparation for the jobs to (hopefully) come. Professor Szykowski’s “never give up” spirit inspires me even today. I admire him for pursuing despite obstacles, his education (earning his B. A. in night school) while working full time and raising two children. This perseverance, born of experience and a dedication to learning, self-critical evaluation, equity, and reconstitution, is what I try to pass on to my students.
Mr. Szykowski experienced a difficult childhood with many adult responsibilities, left the country of his birth to have a chance at a different life; but he survived. He did not do it by himself. He had help along the way and luck. Surely this luck was abetted by his own will to act. Just as he owed immense debts of gratitude to the many people who were there to help him when he was down, I too learned to heal, and to celebrate life. When he spoke about war or politics or art or ideology, I remember looking into his eyes — unnervingly large and probing behind his thick glasses — and knowing that he wasn’t just getting this stuff from books. I never got to thank Mr. Szykowski properly, or to even tell him that I had become a French teacher when he contacted me for my birthday this summer. I hope that his spirit hears my endearing homage. Perhaps one person cannot change the world; but this person surely changed a student’s world forever.